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    How high

    You do realize, don’t you, that we could have to go through this at least three more times?

    Michael may have been the absolute biggest of the ’80s-defining stars whom vast swaths of Americans watched on TV, listened to on Walkman headphones, idolized to the point of dementia, and followed through subsequent ups and downs before gradually deciding that maybe the weirdness was a little too much. But he wasn’t the only one. There are also Prince, Whitney, and Madge.

    I’m the least worried about Madonna, and I don’t say that just because I’m a rabid (not to say demented) fan. It’s just that Madonna is one of those terrifying control freaks whom you figure will drop dead from a stress-induced coronary at thirty-five but who actually end up soldiering on well into their nineties, shriveled and cantankerous. I fully expect Madonna to spend her eighty-fifth birthday kicking off a concert tour, emerging dramatically on stage from a floodlit, mirror-tiled giant bedpan while “Live to Tell” thunders from the sound system. Singing “Open Your Heart” while pole-dancing around her IV stand. Rasping “Vogue” while flinging herself in lewdly angular, spread-eagled poses over her walker, dressed in nothing but a micro-mini hospital gown (as interpreted by Anna Molinari in winter-white raw silk) over a pair of Depends customized with black lace. Performing “Like a Virgin” in a bra made of defibrillator pads. Giving a mid-show shout-out to her grandkids, Lourdes’s and Rocco’s children, who by that point will be halfway through Yale and very deep into therapy. As long as she stays away from horses, Madonna is the kind of person who will outlive most of the people who knew her when. She’ll greet the Grim Reaper’s arrival by shoving him flat on his back and barking, “I SAID YOU NEED TO GIVE ME FIFTEEN MORE MINUTES TO FINISH THIS SET OF CRUNCHES, JERKFACE!” Madonna will get a big media send-off, but I’m betting she’ll have lived a full life by then, so at least commentators will keep a lid on all this disingenuous soul-searching.

    But I’m not so sure about the others. Prince strikes me as a wild card, and (like Jackson, though in less disturbing ways) he’s always been considered a weirdo. And Whitney hasn’t exactly been keeping herself in the best of health. So if one of them goes in a fashion that’s deemed untimely, you just know what we’re in for. Katie Couric will get Mariah on the phone to coo about how Whitney’s hits “touched so many, many people’s hearts and lives,” when in reality she probably spent every night of her twenties ramming pins into a Whitney voodoo doll. Jam and Lewis will tell CBS that their respect for Prince is boundless–“just boundless…we can’t put it into words…a real genius”–when they’ve actually been thinking, for the last quarter-century, Fire us because of the weather? We told you we’d bounce back!

    It’s that kind of thing that’s been driving me nuts. The wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson in and of itself doesn’t reflect all that well on us or our media, but it’s understandable. It is 2009. You can go online and read about meatier stuff if that’s what matters to you. I know that cap and trade is more important. The Iranian uprising is more important. North Korea is more important. There’s a lot going on that’s more important than the death of a pop star. But Jackson was hugely influential, and his death has spurred a lot of people to reflect on the cultural era he dominated. Fine.

    It’s just, the decision to do all Michael all the time for the next few days has run up against our hyper-fast news cycle: the only way to act as if you were always delivering a putatively “new” angle on him is to keep finding another star to say that he was “special” and “gifted” and that he “didn’t have support.” We know already. We’ve known for years. We knew before Cher and Britney and Celine and Jay Z said so. Can’t they busy themselves with their own trawling for media notoriety and not hustle in on Michael Jackson’s this one last time?

    No, of course, they can’t. It doesn’t work that way. He was epochally successful and powerful in the industry, and no matter what everyone else really thought of him, everyone else looks more important by appearing to have something meaningful to say about him. And if any of his fellow early-MTV luminaries go under similar circumstances, we’ll be sitting through the same thing.

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